The shift from mechanical industry to digital/electronic technology over the past 30 years has been momentous on a global and historical scale. Through the prism of three generations of a Mexicano/Chicano family in Los Angeles, these shifts find their dramatic pulse in the novel. I thank everyone who took the time to participate with their own stories, their own wisdoms, their ideas.
I barely got a day to breath at home after my two weeks on the road – and after an amazing assembly with hundreds of students at Venice High School – when I hopped on a plane to Washington DC to spend a couple of days with several middle-school students at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, VA, part of the “Story Circle Project” run by Leila Gordon and the Reston Community Center. I spent three hours each day watching and helping the immigrant youth transform their remarkable stories of passage, discrimination, sorrow, and triumph into stage readings and tableaus for a June 5 community presentation. The youth came from Egypt, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, China (adopted by an American family), Bolivia (she was also half-Polish), Lebanon, and from Sierra Leone/Africa.
These young people were endearing and brave. I became in awe of their spirit, their energy, their commitment. I wish them the best in this and any other performances/work they attempt to do. They are the world story of today.
The day after my return home, I then drove with Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural’s Coordinator, Mike Centeno, a young film maker and youth organizer, to the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation’s “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” conference in the Malibu Hills. Co-sponsored by Homeboy Industries, Shade Tree Mentoring, Chicago’s Youth Struggling for Survival, Youth Opportunity Movement, Youth Mentoring Connection, and Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural, among others, we started with almost three days of work with youth mentors and leaders from around the country that utilized poetry, story, song, drumming, and intense talk to open up the heart and move the imagination to the possibilities of youth work based on language, story, and voice.
Then youth from Watts, Boyle Heights/East LA, South Central LA, San Fernando Valley, Chicago, Seattle, Pomona, San Francisco Bay Area, Culver City, Sudan, and other areas came for another three days of stories and poetic expression, culminating in a “Voices of Youth Celebration” at Mount Saint Mary’s College in LA. It was difficult to get the youth to slow down, pay attention, write and tell their most compelling, even if dark, stories, which would then be read to a community audience made up of their mentors, teachers, friends, and parents.
But we persisted, and the youth came through.
Michael Meade, Orland Bishop, and myself facilitated the work with little time or detailed organization. But in the end, the young people – ages 11 to 31 – came together like they always seem to do. The Community Celebration at Mount Saint Mary’s College brought close to 200 people. In the presentation, we incorporated break dancing and capoeira (thanks to Tanee, Check-It, and Chris of Youth Struggling for Survival), a Sudanese welcoming song (thanks to Santino Moses), spoken word (with Jacinda of Chicago’s Kuumba Lynx and Cristina of Pomona), music (drumming by Etai and Michael, saxophone by Jakob, and guitar with my son, Ruben), and welcoming words by Michael, Orland, and myself. The 50-plus youth rounded out the event with their most amazing words – many written just a day or two before they read.
It was a great time for all – but moreover, a time to see our young people anew, although troubled, uncertain, raging, and hurting, yet with beauty, ideas, skills, dreams, and intense truths. I was honored to be part of this crucial and necessary work. In the coming weeks, I have more schools and classes to visit. This celebration will carry me through these and more. The students' lives are largely unsung, unwanted, and pushed aside – as are their stories. But here’s the kicker – they are the keys to direction, meaning and purpose for all of us.
I will, of course, continue to promote this book in my on-going talks, readings and events for a long time to come (I’m gone from 80 to 100 days a year). It’s an important book that I hope will have a long shelf life.
The next day – as many already know – the city of Los Angeles elected a Chicano mayor – Antonio Villaragoisa – with close to 60 percent of the vote. This is historical but also challenging for Antonio as well as the whole city. Los Angeles must look toward the future, its elegantly mixed populace, and imaginative and inclusive ways to cooperate, share, learn, and act in the interests of all the people in an unprecedented world city.
I hope to work with Antonio on major key issues – most notably in the arts (LA can lead the nation as a pristine example of what an arts agenda can do to transform blight to beauty and deep divisions to unifying creative endeavors), but also around gangs and violence. There are amazing peace and healing efforts throughout the city that have been minimized, without proper funding, and often pushed aside. Most of the money around gangs and violence is in law enforcement and prisons. While there’s a place for police in any workable package for community peace, much more has to be done on the front end of the problem – with schools, healthcare, decent recreation, creative options, and meaningful work.
One man can’t do this alone. One man’s leadership, however, can galvanize the energy, vision, and social forces already in place to transform and transcend the deep and ongoing problems plaguing the country’s second largest city.
Tonight, Tia Chucha’s hosts a special reading of Frank Del Olmo’s book “Commentaries on his Time.” Frank past away last year – far too soon. He was an LA Times reporter and editorial board member and one who would go out of his way to help others in his field. I was one of those, many years ago, struggling as a young journalist. People like Del Olmo, Frank Sotomayor, and others would make sure the doors they helped open in U.S. journalism would stay open long enough to bring in new talent and ideas. Frank Del Olmo was always open to me on ideas. Once in the early 1980s, when I brought activists from Juchitan, Oaxaca who had taken over city halls and farmlands with Zapoteca Indian villagers, he set up a special editorial board meeting to hear from them and share knowledge of the growing Mexican indigenous movement for land, dignity, and life. I thank Frank Del Olmo’s wife, Magdalena, and the LA Times for making this event possible. Please come to Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural at 7:30 PM. Frank Del Olmo is someone who must not be forgotten. This book is a great way for his example to be taught to as many as possible – particularly young people looking to grab a thread of life they can follow.
On May 14, I got up early to catch a long plane ride from Chicago to San Fran – with two radio interviews as soon as I departed the plane. Later that evening I had dinner with my friend Juliana Mojica, her daughter Alejandra, and granddaughter Mireya. We ended up in a great Yucateco restaurant on Valencia in the Mission. I attended a reading in honor of the important Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton (where my friends Jack Hirschman, Margot Pepper, Alfonso Teixador, Abache, Alejandro Murguia, and others) read or attended at the Cachi Art Studio. Then I got to check out a couple of bands at the 12 Galaxies night club such as Castles in Spain and a well-loved San Pancho original group, Oriza. This helps me find out who’s who and what’s what for possible future engagements at Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural – we’re expecting amazing music, poetry, author signings, theater, and more to grace our stage this summer.
So you know, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural – the not-for-profit sister organization to the café/bookstore – has received a grant from the LA Cultural Affairs Department to host a music/art/poetry/theater festival this fall called “Celebrating the Word – Spoken, Performed and Sung.” We hope it becomes an annual event. For more information, check out our website later in the year at www.tiachucha.com.
Also – Tia Chucha Press, my 16-year-old poetry press, is now publishing out of LA. Our first LA-based book is now out: “My Sweet Unconditional” by ariel robello. A national release party is slated for June 4 at 7 PM. Spread the word.
And while I’m my tour, I’m well aware of the ongoing anti-Mexican/Central American immigrant efforts that have brought Minutemen to the Arizona border (and a misguided invitation by Gov. Swarzenegger to have them come to the California-Mexico border), national anti-inmigrant gang efforts aimed at Mara Salvatrucha (labeled “terrorists,” the latest ploy to detract from the economic crises in the country and the folly of war that continues to kill with no sane or reasonable direction), and the small resurgence of Save Our State (a racist mostly white group), who came to protest a mural in Baldwin Park, CA that they claim was touting the turning over of the Southwest US to Mexico (nothing of the sort was being advocated in the mural). The counter-protesters were 10 to 1 in size, but as my friend Mark Vallen says, this was not just about racism and ant-immigrant policies – it’s also about censorship of city-sanctioned art.
One SOS leader apparently smirked his way through the protest, smugly claiming the counter-protesters were getting his message out – apparently that Americans will not tolerate what the mural is apparently NOT saying (except in his literal, narrow-minded mind}. He doesn’t realize that SOS is also galvanizing a significant section of Mexican and Central American (and other) youth – like ex-Governor Pete Wilson did when Proposition 187 ended up on the state ballot. Thousands of young people marched and demonstrated against the proposition in the 1980s – with many becoming politically and socially active (the proposition won, but was later declared unconstitutional). Waking up from any complacency is vital today. I honor these youth – the racist arrogance of SOS will only get the opposite result (by the way, Pete Wilson has been unable to maintain a viable political life after his Proposition 187 debacle).
And the road goes on…
Houston came next – and this turned out to be fantastic. Tony Diaz and his crew at Nuestra Palabra, a radio show on KPFT as well as a literary showcase for poets, rappers, storytellers and more, organized a wonderful event at the Multicultural Education/Counseling for the Arts Center on Kane Street. More than 100 people showed up. Several wonderful young poets read before me, a great way to start any presentation.
I also did two presentations at Milby High School in the barrio, to students and later teachers. TV affiliates Fox, ABC and Univision showed up, as well as a Houston Chronicle newspaper reporter; they included individual interviews of myself, students and teachers. I was also on Dean Dalton’s KUHF-FM radio show and an AM business radio show (also broadcast in Dallas) that turned out great. Another interview by a Bravo Houston newspaper writer, and a radio show with Nuestra Palabra on KPFT – that included a talk with Isabel Allende by phone on her new book “Zorro” – made for one of the best media events of any city.
I’m particularly pleased with the attendances of my readings so far – from 30 to 200 people. It’s hard to get people to come out for readings unless you’re one of the “celebrity” writers. I don’t have any issue with these writers – all power to them. But what’s cool for me is the long-time fans and readers of my work who continue to show support for my books (I now have nine books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and the novel). With “Music of the Mill” I’m also connecting to people, families and communities affected by industry and the deindustrialization this country experienced on a large-scale basis in the late 1970s and the 1980s.
This is a story that has not been fully told, particularly in literature. I hope my efforts help fuel more of these stories. The working class writer is one of this country’s greatest legacies. We need more.
Trini’s comportment is rooted in something deep and scary – scary for dudes like me who spend most of their lives with obsessions, addictions, impulses, and emotional roller coasters. She moves surefooted, with great thought, not any faster or further than she has to, which usually requires great knowledge and a strong sense of safety. She doesn’t take many risks – but she has joined in and helped whenever I did. Her love is encompassing, trusting, and just there, truly there. That’s scary, too. Oh there were times we wanted to bite each other’s head off – where we wanted to run away from each other and start over somewhere else (something I’ve been known to do). But always we came back, unable to really let go, realizing that in each other we have purpose, dreams, hopes, love, and a future. I can’t imagine my life without Trini. She’s my dawn and sunset. My hummingbird and wasp (the sting, man, the sting).
I had a dream last night. I dreamed that Trini had died. I was extremely sad. Her ghost came to me to say she was still there for me. That she couldn’t be held, but she would be there when I needed her. I almost woke up in tears. Trini is a hard person to commit to things – but when she does, she’s there to the end. As a fellow poet once said of his partner many years ago, “till the bumpers fall off.” The fact she’s committed to me – not when I’m mean, ugly or detached, but when I’m in destiny, emboldened, loving, and impassioned, is a gift. No man can have a greater gift.
So Trini, I love you thoroughly, the way a heart does when it goes mad (I mean this in a good way). We’ve been together through some difficult times – particularly during my oldest son’s ordeals in Chicago before his incarceration, through my sobriety (painful, although in the long run the right thing), and a massive move of hundreds of miles. We endured the uncertainty and sacrifice of the practical realities of establishing Tia Chucha’s as a viable business and cultural gathering center (it would not be the great place it is without Trini).
You’re growing old in a lovely way. I’m a lot more decrepit. But still – our love is young. Madly young. Gracias, my baby. Tlazokamati. Thanks. Sometimes I don’t have flowers, but I do have words.
I’m on my way to Denver today – where I also have friends and will have a reading at the famed Tattered Cover Bookstore. I’ll keep you all posted on things. So far the audiences have been receptive and supportive. It’s hard to get noticed with books these days – thousands are published every year. But Rayo’s efforts have landed reviews in Kirkus Review, the Library Journal, Latina Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, LA Times, Denver Westworld – more are expected. My talks have become town hall meetings on many issues – including those in the book about displacement, re-placement, nature and the nature of our lives in post-industrial America. I hope I see you at one of my readings/talks. Onward.
My wife Trini and I went to see Bruce on Monday, May 2 at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood where he did a wonderful solo acoustic set (some electrical guitars, but also piano). It was a fantastic transcendent evening. His songs – even some of his rockier well-known ones like “Youngstown” – were slowed down, thoughtfully, artistically. Trini said they were like prayers. He also performed many from his latest CD “Devils and Dust,” and the words resonated, the stories touched our stories, and his banter in-between some of the songs felt more urgent and politically edgy then before. It was exactly what we needed. His courage in the face of a hardened, intractable right-wing assault on government and the media – seeming to scare most performers and celebrities from risking dire social commentary – is admirable. He doesn’t have to do this. Nobody does. That’s why I respect this man and his music.
Bruce took great leaps and chances to organize musicians and other artists against Bush in the last election. That’s exactly what we all needed. I’m sure he’s paid a price for it. But there are many people like Trini and me who hunger for these words and songs. Thank you, Bruce, for being the logic in the mathematics of chaos that politics today has become.
Integritas, gravitas, and claritas – what all artists have to work with in their shaping of the world: integrity (the proper relationship of the parts to the whole), gravity (the weight of the issues, concerns, themes, and connections that has be properly balanced so it’s not too weighty, not too light), and clarity (precise language, story, execution). Bruce does this well. I also have to thank writer and long-time Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh and his wife Barbara Carr for being such good friends over the years – you just get me, you just get my work. That’s truly a gift.
NEW YORK TIMES
March 28, 2005
Gang of Our Own Making
By Luis J. Rodriguez
San Fernando, Calif. - In 1996, I was present at a meeting of gang members and community leaders in San Salvador. Heavily tattooed young men, one with a hand mangled from a hand grenade blast, told of the horrifying violence and gang warfare that had succeeded the battles of the 12-year civil war on El Salvador's streets. Aside from their tattoos, what was striking about these gang members is that they had grown up not in El Salvador, but in the United States, and that the gangs they were in - Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street - were started in Los Angeles.
That gathering was startling evidence of the globalization of United States-based gangs. Just how much Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has grown since then was evident this month when the Department of Homeland Security announced the arrests of 103 gang members in New York State, Miami, Washington, the Baltimore area and Los Angeles.
Mara Salvatrucha is now reported to operate in 31 states and five countries, with 100,000 members across Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The government says MS-13 is the fastest-growing and most violent gang in the country. It describes MS-13 as having "cells" that smuggle people, guns and contraband across international lines, and some federal officials have mentioned possible ties between MS-13 and Al Qaeda.
While there's no proof that MS-13 has any connection to Al Qaeda, it has something in common with it: American policy played a role in the creation of both groups.
MS-13 is a result of our policy in Central America, specifically the policy that fueled the civil wars that sent more than two million refugees to the United States in the 1980's. Some of their children confronted well-entrenched Mexican-American gangs in the barrios where they landed. For their protection, they created their own groups, emulating the style of older Chicano gangs like 18th Street. MS-13, for instance, was born in the crowded, crack-ridden Mexican and Central-American community of Pico-Union, just west of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.
After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, government officials declared the main culprits to be young African-American and Latino gang members. In the mid-90's as many as 40,000 youths accused of being members of MS-13, 18th Street and other gangs were deported every year to Mexico and Central America. Sophisticated, tattooed, English-speaking young men raised and acculturated in the United States were sent to countries with no resources, no jobs and no history with these types of gangs.
Soon the deported members of MS-13 and 18th Street began recruiting among homeless and glue-sniffing youth who had never been to the United States. In a few years, these new members were making their way to the United States, ending up in far-flung corners of the country and recruiting a new generation. When the Department of Homeland Security deports the men it arrested last week, the cycle will start again.
When I was growing up in East L.A. in the 1960's, I was a member of a Chicano street gang. I was shot at a half-dozen times and arrested on several occasions. I understand why a teenager finds joining a gang necessary. But thanks to a few teachers, youth workers and community leaders, I eventually left the gang life.
What would have happened to me if I had been deported to a homeland I barely knew? The gang members at the 1996 meeting I attended were trying to find alternatives to violence and drugs. They wanted to be incorporated into the country, to be allowed to rebuild, to learn skills, to make decisions about bettering their communities and to stop being harassed or beaten by the police and attacked by death squads.
While the meeting ended on a high note, with people applauding and promising changes, in the end little happened. A group of former MS-13 and 18th Street gang youth formed a peace and justice organization called Homies Unidos, but their efforts over the years to obtain jobs, training, tattoo removal and counseling were largely ignored.
Instead, El Salvador instituted a "mano dura," or "firm hand," policy. It became illegal to be a member of a gang, whether a crime was committed or not. Jails became filled with gang youth from Los Angeles. The same policy was instituted in Honduras. According to news reports, these governments were getting advice from American law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department.
Today we're confronted with the same choice: we can continue the repression, arrests and firm-hand policies that only guarantee more violence and more lost youth. Or we can bring gang youth to the table and work to create jobs and training, providing real options for meaningful work and healthy families. In other words, we can help sow the seeds of transformation, eliminating the reasons young people join gangs in the first place.
We have the means to do both. Both have great costs. But one choice will worsen the violence and terror; the other will help bring peace, both in the streets of the United States and in the barrios of America's neighbors.
I survived, however, to take part in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Awards celebration in Berkeley, hosted by Dr. Octavio Romano and Herminio Rios. In 1973, I was given an honorable mention for a group of vignettes I called “Barrio Expressions.” I had been writing bits and pieces of my life and thoughts in juvenile hall and adult jails since I was 15. Then with the help of a teacher and a school administrator, my pieces were retyped and submitted to this prestigious contest that had given recognition to Chicano greats Tomas Rivera and Rudy Anaya.
The winners of the Quinto Sol award that year were Rolando Hinojosa and Estela Portillo Trambley. I was honored to meet them. I was the least known and, for sure, the least skilled. But they treated me with respect and dignity.
A year after this trip, I quit heroin, cold turkey. And I began to seriously dream about a real writer’s life (which I finally embarked on seven years later).
I have just received news that Dr. Octavio Romano passed away this past week. I am deeply saddened by this loss. I want to convey my deepest condolences to his family and many countless friends.
Dr. Romano will forever stand as the leading light of Chicano letters. He had the vision and fortitude to go far beyond whatever existed before. He helped launch the careers of so many Chicano writers and artists in the literary publication “El Grito,” and later through his Tonatiuh Publishing.
I am indebted to his efforts--and to being able to see this once lost indigenous Chicano youth and find a poet and writer. He was so encouraging and supportive of my small but important writing attempts those many years ago. Now I have eight published books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. My first novel, “Music of the Mill,” is being published this April by Rayo Books/HarperCollins; in the fall, my poetry collection, “My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems,” will be out by Curbstone Press/Rattle Magazine.
I can truly say I would not be here today if not for Dr. Octavio Romano. Descanse en paz, hermano.
What could we do for more justice and peace in this world? Many big ideas are out there--nothing wrong with the big ideas. We need more of them. We also need new ways of looking at history, the truth of it, not the idealized version we have in our history books or mass media. There's much to learn, although it appears moments of justice and peace have been few and far between. Even the so-called bastion of freedom and modernity--the USA--has a bloody and unjust past. I don't need to reiterate what these are--there are plenty of ways to find out. The point is the root of violence and war today goes back to our beginnings.
An unjust land, unless it has a prolonged and conscious period of healing, reconciliation, and transformation, will keep repeating its worse sins. Our country is called great. Of course, it's great. What country wouldn't be great with free land (taken brutally and mercilessly from the native inhabitants), free labor (for more than 400 years, slavery, mostly of black Africans, made this country the richest, most industrialized in the world), and freedom from the past (no feudalism, for example, as most of Europe).
Capitalism in this country has been the most energetic and productive based on the freedom to exploit people and resources, extended throughout the world. Yes, we're "free."
Yet there are other freedoms in our blood--freedoms that I value and use to challenge the "freedoms" I've mentioned above. They include the freedoms to organize, to write, to create, to dream. The struggles for these freedoms have been hard and bloody as well. In my own lifetime, I've seen one of its pinnacles in the Civil Rights and freedom struggles of the past 50 years--with African Americans, leading the way, but also rapidly involving Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Women, Gays, the Disabled, workers, and more.
So let's be clear about what's made this country great--it has a bad history, that's true, but it also has correctives in the words, poetry, art, organizations, and visions of the most far-sighted, spiritually-engaged, and human-and-earth connected people.
Fighting for freedom in Iraq is meaningless unless we're clear about which freedom we mean. The freedom to control the political process? To exploit oil? To bring in U.S. based industries (like McDonald's) to a country that doesn't need it?
Or the freedom to organize, challenge, think, write, and create--even if we don't agree all the time. Real freedom is inherently bound up with justice and peace. Any other claims of "freedom" may only benefit the few, for exploitation and power. Again, let's be clear about what we mean. Freedom is a word used often by news people and policy makers--it doesn't always mean what you may think. I'm for freedom. But mine doesn't come with tanks, invading armies, and radio-controlled bombs. Mine comes with books, films, architecture, sculpture, dance, music, ideas, songs, and wholesome/healthy lives.
And that's a world of difference.